Ask the Dietitian: Could My Baby Be Allergic to Dairy?

Ask the Dietitian: Could My Baby Be Allergic to Dairy?

Posted by Diane, MPH, RD, LD - Director of Nutrition Services on Jun 8th 2020

Is my baby allergic to dairy?

Is your baby experiencing gassiness and bloating? Or maybe your baby is suffering from more severe symptoms like vomiting and rashes after a feeding? Could dairy be to blame?

If your baby is showing any symptoms of an allergy to dairy, there are a few possible reasons. Always check with your baby’s doctor to find out if your baby has an allergy to cow’s milk protein, an intolerance to cow’s milk protein or to lactose (milk sugar). The symptoms are often similar, but they affect the body differently.

So what’s the difference between a food allergy and an intolerance if the symptoms are often alike? An allergy is the result of the body’s immune system not recognizing the allergen which is usually a protein like cow’s milk protein. The body’s entire immune system kicks into action with antibodies to defend against this “foreign” food component and multiple body organs can be affected. Symptoms are often more severe than an intolerance to the food component and can even be life-threatening. The symptoms like a rash, vomiting, stuffy nose, and even difficulty breathing often appear shortly after consuming the allergen. There are even situations that you’ve probably heard about where children with a peanut allergy can’t be anywhere near products containing peanut ingredients.

An intolerance to a food is related to digestion and usually the lack of an enzyme to digest the food. It is not related to the immune system. Let’s use lactose intolerance as an example. The enzyme, called lactase, breaks down the carbohydrate lactose in the digestive tract into glucose and galactose. If lactase is deficient in the digestive tract, the lactose is not digested causing symptoms like diarrhea, gassiness, bloating, and cramping. The symptoms usually occur within a few hours after consuming the lactose containing food.

Intolerance is more difficult to determine than an allergy. Your baby’s doctor can do skin and/or blood testing to determine if your baby’s symptoms are related to an allergy or to an intolerance. He or she can help you figure out what formula would be best as there are many different types and brands of formulas for fussy or allergic babies. If cow’s milk protein allergy is suspected, the standard of care is to usually recommend a specialized protein hydrolysate formula where the milk proteins have been broken down to prevent an allergic reaction. These unfortunately taste and smell bad. Young infants will often accept a protein hydrolysate formula, but older infants often will not. This type of formula may be the only choice other than going to an even more specialized amino acid based formula.

You may be wondering whether a plant-based formula, such as a pea protein formula, could be used. This will depend on a few factors, but plant-based formulas may possibly be an option. However, a baby allergic to milk protein may also be allergic to plant-based proteins like pea protein. Only allergy testing can determine what specific foods will cause an allergic reaction. If your baby’s fussiness or symptoms of an intolerance are caused by an intolerance to either dairy proteins or lactose, then plant-based formulas could be used (but do check to make sure they are dairy and lactose free.)

As always, don’t hesitate to email me with any questions you may have! All the best….Diane

**For specific medical care and nutritional advice on product usage, please see your healthcare professional